By Sean Axmaker
Before Christopher Nolan made his fame with the structurally and dramatically ingenious Memento, he made his name with the similarly non-linear neo-noir Following, a black-and-white mindgame about a young man (Jeremy Theobald) who's obsessed with following people and is drawn into the world of a break-in artist (Alex Haw) who likes to peak in to the personal lives of his victims. His fascination with alienation and urban loneliness and the shuffled story structure is honed to dramatic perfection in Memento, a wickedly clever murder mystery told backwards, though the real surprise is how Nolan turns what could have been a simple gimmick into a dramatic inspiration and the source of tragedy revealed only as we fit the pieces together. And while his Insomnia, a remake of the Norwegian noir of the same name, sticks to a fairly linear narrative, he blurs the lines of fact and fiction and rattles our confidence in the truth through the increasingly hallucinatory perspective of its compromised hero, shifting the snowballing moral corruption of the original into a drama darkened by shades of guilt and accountability.
Not exactly the resumé one would expect for the director chosen by Warner Bros. to not only resurrect but also rejuvenate and redefine the iconic comic book hero Batman for the big screen. With the previous franchise driven to camp by Joel Schumacher's one-two sucker punch of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin and a parade of hit-and-miss leading men, Nolan had his work cut out for him. What he delivers is a film that embraces the psychologically shadowy side of the Dark Knight, a moody take inspired by the violent tales of the early comic books, the brooding comic book rebirth of the 70s and Frank Miller's gritty Batman: Year One revision. And he even manages to throw some of his trademark narrative shuffling into the telling.
In an all-too-brief phone interview, Nolan talked about the daunting challenge of taking on one of the most iconic heroes of the 20th century and the physical challenge of tackling his first action blockbuster.
Why Batman? There are tremendous expectations for such an iconic character. What did you want to bring to the screen that hadn't been done before?
For me, the exciting opportunity was that you had a studio with this phenomenal character, wanting to re-introduce the character to the big screen and looking for a fresh way to do it. I felt I had never seen a superhero story tackled with a real degree of reality, of seriousness, in a way, and Batman, to me, as the most mortal, the most ordinary in terms of abilities, of superheroes - he has no super powers - he's the natural choice for trying to tell a superhero story in a realistic manner. I just felt that would be something I've never seen before and something that would be really fun and exciting to do.
Did you feel you had some responsibility to the fans and the history of the character when you went about remaking him for the screen?
I felt an enormous responsibility in terms of the history of the character, and the way in which I viewed that responsibility was that I felt I had the responsibility to make the most sincere effort to make a great version of the character as I understood him from studying the history of the comics. You know that you're never going to please every individual interpretation of what Batman should be, but I felt strongly that what fans needed to see in a Batman film was somebody's most sincere attempt to convey the greatness of the character on film.
You face the same challenge as the X-Men and Spider-Man films, that is, decades of comic book history to sift through and to bring together in a single script, but your challenge is even more daunting. There are almost 70 years of Batman stories to draw from, with multiple interpretations within that run. Where specifically did you turn for inspiration?
I turned to David Goyer, who I co-wrote the script with. He is a comic book expert and I felt that his knowledge of the character was just going to be one of the tremendous assets to the process of distilling the essence of Batman. Together with him, and with his guidance, we went and talked to the guys at DC in New York and really started canvassing a lot of opinions about the essence of the character and really just dove into the archives at DC. It was just such a wonderful wealth of material. It's very inspirational when you're setting out to write the script.
Were there any particular writers or artists that stood out in that wealth of material, specific takes on the character where you said, "Yes, this is what I want to draw from"?
The O'Neil/Adams [writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams] period of Batman comics was something that really struck us as an interesting turning point. We've spoken a lot about Frank Miller and the more recent graphic novels and so forth, Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween and things like that, that are certainly huge influences on the film, but the Neal Adams period and the introduction of Ra's Al Ghul as a villain in the Batman comics was also a defining influence on the film.
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